January 22, 1879, was the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War between the British and the Zulu kingdom in South Africa.  The battle took place in a remote area of the Natal province called “Isandlwana.”  Isandlwana is remembered as the worst single defeat in British military history in terms of percentage.  Surrounded and attacked by nearly 20,000 Zulu warriors, nearly all of the 1,800 British defenders were massacred.   Armed mainly with assegais (the Zulu short stabbing spear), the Zulus literally overwhelmed the Britsh.   The reasons for defeat?  The British – led by the inept Lord Chelmsford – upon arrival at Isandlwana with about 10,000 troops – refused to “laager” (circle the wagons) or entrench (as was normally required).  Why?  Chelmsford severely underestimated Zulu capabilities. 

Shortly after arrival at Isandlwana, Chelmsford marched off with nearly all of his troop “looking for Zulus.”    Meanwhile, the entire Zulu nation was just over a hill.  Waiting.   Watching.  Chelmsford left the similarly inept Col Anthony Durnford in charge of the remaining soliders.  Durnford – with a bare 1,800 men – set a sparsley-defended perimeter nearly a mile out from the camp.  And when the 20,000 Zulus attacked, they quickly knifed through the perimeter and set upon the camp.  Durnford never gave the order to “strike the tents” (in other words, pull down the center pole of the hundreds of tents so that clear vision of the terrain could be had).  Thus the battle raged around canvas tents.  And there is rumor that a curmudgeonly quartermaster refused to pass out ammunition (“I have no orders to give out ammunition“) even though the Zulus were pouring through the lines and the encampment. 

It is clear that the British underestimated the Zulu capabilities.   And this gave rise to the major military disaster where only a hundred or so British soldiers barely escaped with their lives.   The few who escaped raced in all directions.  Many raced in the direction of Rorke’s Drift. . . . . 

One thought on “Isandlwana

  1. Alan

    ZULU (The battle of Rorke’s Drift) by Alan Gray

    “Zulu’s attacking, hundreds Sir” the sentry did report

    “Hundreds?” said Bromhead glass to his eye

    “Dear chap you missed off a nought !”

    So swiftly they came where none stood before

    out of the grass they appeared

    Big giant fellows muscled and lithe

    Banging hide shields with short handled spears

    Transfixed by the sight fear in our eyes

    the Sergeant cried out “fix bayonets”

    “You’re British” he said “let’s see some pride”

    and my heart danced a jig in my tunic

    The order “fire !” was barked in our ears

    Brave Zulu’s fell like Martyrs

    Our barrels glowed with bullets expelled

    and the Boer said “that’s for starters”

    Words rang true relentless they came

    engulfing the red with the brown

    The blood of the brave was split on that day

    like seeds on hallowed ground

    Night brought respite exhausted we lay

    nursing our wounds like sick dogs

    Zulu’s had gone quick as the came

    drifting away like a fog

    Morning came like a thief in the night

    stealing our dreams as we slept

    Brave were the men who stood for the fight

    so few seemed so inept

    For as the sun crept over the hills

    and warmed us with his breath

    Ten thousand Zulu we espied swathed in silhouette

    Hearts they sank from our mouths to our boots

    as we looked on with intrepid fear

    When an old Zulu chief from afar waved his shield

    we sensed that our ending was near

    Then strange things occurred, did the Lord intervene

    or was it a dream we implored

    For the Zulu’s turned from the front to the rear

    leaving us lonely standing in awe

    Up went a cheer gallant men wept

    for the pure gift of life they received

    “Bloody British” the old Boer muttered

    It’s heroes they’ve reprieved, it’s heroes they’ve reprieved…

    Hi, wrote this a few year ago. Hope you can use it…best wishes, Alan

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